Take Two #19: What's that in the Armor?
By Kyra-lin Hom
When reviewing my list of possible column topics for the week, I of course was immediately drawn to the ESPN scandal otherwise known as the “Chink in the Armor” headline. On top of it being at best a horrendously sloppy bit of journalism and at worst an appallingly tasteless slur, I am also Chinese. I actually had another column already written and ready to go when this figurative expletive hit the proverbial fan. But there was no way I could let this go without throwing in my two cents.
For those a bit out of the loop, this thoughtless headline came about when the New York Knicks' winning streak finally came to an end. See, a handful of weeks ago this team, in an act of desperation, pulled the American-born Chinese unknown Jeremy Lin off the deep end of the bench and into the game. Not only did this mild-mannered 6'3” point guard bring it, he brought it hard, scoring 28 points his first game and setting in motion a new winning trend for this Knicks' season. He'll be the first to admit that he's got a lot to learn and definitely room to improve, but even the LA Lakers' Kobe Bryant – arguably one of the best players in the history of the league – just told him to keep doing what he's doing. By now only the blindest of skeptics are denying that this man has game.
Anyway, when the Knicks finally met their match in the New Orleans Hornets, ESPN editor Anthony Federico proofed and released an online article featuring a photo of a Hornets player stealing the ball from Lin entitled “Chink in the Armor” with the subheading “Jeremy Lin's 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-Snapping Loss to Hornets.” Federico apparently left his brain at home that day.
“Chink” isn't just a crack or a fissure. It is an ethnic slur for a person of Chinese (or even any far eastern) descent dating from the mid 19th century. Most likely it first came into circulation when Englishmen adopted the Indian term for Chinese people, “Chinky.” It became a true slur in America when the dehumanizing word was used in arguments justifying the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 – not repealed until 1943.
I do not believe that Federico is a racist. And despite his lengthy apology that, in my opinion, quite immodestly bemoaned his good samaritan qualities, he's probably a decent person. I do believe, however, that he monumentally failed in his job as an editor and did deserve to be fired. To quote Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online, “...Federico wasn't fired for being a racist, he was fired for making a massively bad editorial decision that potentially cost ESPN – that is to say, Disney – huge amounts of goodwill with key audiences in the U.S. and Asia.”
Makes sense, right? Federico was fired for not doing his job. Yet I'm still running into people who side with Federico – and the other ESPN employees getting caught in the fallout. Their argument is that the word wasn't meant as a slur but was rather irresponsibly used for its place in this common American phrase. Okay fine, it wasn't meant to be offensive. A giant case of 'my bad.'
For all of these people who don't think it's a big deal, let's set business politics aside and pretend that Federico is just Joe Blo sitting next to us on the bus. Let's go even further and switch to a term we're all familiar with, the infamous N-word. Now we have an uproar. Nearly everyone in this country can agree that no one should be using that word in any context. But wait, this Joe Blo is from somewhere else and never knew that it was something he shouldn't be saying. That makes it all better, right? Hardly.
I'm not arguing for or against the political correctness of derived phrases like 'criss-cross applesauce,' 'hip hip hooray!' or 'picnic.' These are phrases which have worked their way into our vocabulary with such tenacity that most people don't have any inkling of their racist origins. But that doesn't mean you should use the term 'hooligan' in the presence of the Irish either.
The English language is a tricky thing. No one is saying it isn't. But if you aren't going to learn where your words come from, especially if words are your job, expect some blowback. And for those determined to disregard all political correctness in an act of social rebellion, either drop your shields of ignorance and learn enough to offend equally or accept your roles as the village idiots and don't be sore when someone calls you out on it. And that's my two cents.